Rosalie Sorrels’ voice is unmistakable. It vacillates between raw and revealing, silky smooth and heartbreaking. Her songs tell tales of love, loneliness and loss, social injustice, political strife and poverty.
An Idaho icon, Sorrels became a folk music legend over her six-decade career of recording and living a larger-than-life, hard-scrabble adventure as she performed across the country with her five children in tow.
Sorrels knew Jimi Hendrix. She jammed with Jerry Garcia at Woodstock and played regularly at the legendary folk-music hot spot Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She became a regular at the top folk festivals, wrote a book and received two Grammy nominations, the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the University of Idaho.
Sorrels mingled in the world of major music and literary figures of her day, including merry prankster Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy (“Ironweed”) and folk music legends Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.
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Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and Sorrels were friends and sometimes more than that. (The “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” author wrote the liner notes for Sorrels’ “Travelin’ Lady.”)
“Rosalie’s songs are so close to the bone, I get nervous listening to them,” he wrote.
Sorrels’ friends and musical family are coming together to honor Sorrels’ music and career as the singer, now 82, battles dementia.
Boise’s rockin’ diva Rocci Johnson is heading the project to produce the three-CD set “Tribute to the Travelin’ Lady: Rosalie Sorrels.” The projected 40 tracks will include a mix of songs written by Sorrels, some written by others that she loved and wove into her repertoire, and originals by Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark and Tom Russell that were inspired by her.
Her songs are interpreted by musicians who know and adore Sorrels, others who count her among their influences and a few who discovered her through this process. So far, the lineup includes seven Grammy winners.
“There are people who see Rosalie as a folky, but that’s only part of who she is musically,” Johnson says. “She’s got 44 original tunes that literally cover every musical genre. She sounds like Billie Holiday on one tune, Janis Joplin on another, and they’re all written by her from the heart. They’re about the difficulties of being a mother, and being on the road with five children, and her political views at the time.”
A little luck and an ‘Occasional Man’
On the eve of Mardi Gras, one of the biggest nights at Humpin’ Hannah’s bar where she fronts the house band, Johnson and her guys took the time to spend several hours at Audio Lab Recording Studio in Garden City, laying down tracks for their contribution to the Sorrels tribute album.
With a four count, the Rocci Johnson Band kicks in to “Occasional Man,” Sorrels’ hard-edged ballad from her 1972 album “Travelin’ Lady.”
By that time, Sorrels was done with marriage and with relationships in general, Johnson says.
“That didn’t mean she wanted to be alone.”
Sorrels’ original recording is a snappy rocker on which she sings with a Joplin- esque swagger. Johnson slowed her version down with a down-and-dirty bass line, solid beats and old-school rocking guitar.
“She’s the essence of the female energy of the folk movement. She stood toe-to-toe with all those guys and could drink them all under the table. The tales of her are legendary,” Johnson says.
Producing this album is more than a passion project for Johnson. It’s been an obsession for the past two years. She’s poured her time, money and resources into paying for musicians’ studio time, tracking down artists such as Griffith and Clark, Muzzie Braun and Eilen Jewell to contribute or record. She worked with Sorrels as much as possible to choose the songs and musicians.
Johnson launched an IndieGoGo.com campaign that didn’t reach its $25,000 goal. A new campaign, this time using GoFundMe.com/RosalieSorrels, launched recently with a goal of $10,000.
Sorrels and Johnson first met long enough ago that Johnson can’t recall the details.
“I just remember we immediately formed a bond,” she says. “It seems like we were performing together somewhere. Like me, she would perform whenever there was a cause that was important to her. We’ve shared stages and time together for about 30 years.”
Many of the musicians on the album have a story about Sorrels’ hospitality and stamina.
“She had appetites, and she was well-known for them,” says Loudon Wainwright III, who met Sorrels in 1969 at Caffè Lena. The folk-music venue was a haven for musicians on the road thanks to proprietress Lena Spencer, who was a friend of Sorrels’. Sorrels lived there from time to time with her kids, and a rotating pack of musicians who would also crash there. Wainwright was there pursuing Kate McGarrigle, whom he would eventually marry.
“In my mind, Rosalie acted as a kind of twisted den mother to a group of us back then,” Wainwright says. “The Sunday dinners Rosalie whipped up for our scruffy bunch are the stuff of legend.”
She says she’s a traveling lady, I say she’s a troubadour warrior with a love of the game.
— Loudon Wainwright III
Wainwright contributed his recording of Sorrels’ and Bruce “Utah” Phillips’ “I’ve Got a Home Out in Utah” to the project.
“It’s a song I have a clear memory of her singing,” he says.
Like many of her friends, Johnson spent many an “epic night” at Sorrels’ Grimes Creek cabin, drinking, talking about life, listening — and learning — about music.
“She would go, ‘Have you heard so-and-so’ ... and pull out some random artist that I hadn’t been familiar with, that I should be,” Johnson says. “Someone like Guy Clark, I only knew his hits, like ‘L.A. Freeway.’ Then I really got into his music and his writing. The same with Loudon Wainw-right.”
Sorrels always was willing to share the scope and depth of her experience. For the tribute project, Tom Russell wrote the song “Pork Roast & Poetry,” inspired by one such night.
He wrote: “And the sun went down, through my glass of Tempranillo; And the candlelight drew shadows on her cheek; Oh, holy night, of pork roast and poetry; With Rosalie Sorrels, up on Grimes Creek.”
From way out in Idaho
Sorrels grew up in Boise, learning to love music and literature from her mom, Nancy Stringfellow, who ran The Book Shop in Downtown Boise, and music from her dad, Walter, an engineer with the Idaho Transportation Department, who played piano and loved musicals. Rosalie read intently and absorbed the words of Thomas Wolfe, William Butler Yeats and other great writers, and dreamed of being an opera singer.
Walter built a cozy cabin at Grimes Creek, where Sorrels often retreated when she needed to ground herself and to heal. In 1988, she suffered an aneurysm; 10 years later, she battled breast cancer.
Both times, her community, friends and colleagues came together to help her spiritually and financially.
Sorrels remained in the Grimes Creek cabin until last year, when she moved to Reno to live with her daughter, Holly Marizu, the second youngest of her five children, who works at the University of Nevada.
“It was difficult to get her to move,” Marizu says. “That cabin is part of her soul.”
Sorrels is helping with the album project when she can, Marizu says, “but she’s having a hard time remembering. She does not want to be forgotten. I’m just so impressed with the work Rocci has done. I’ve played some of the rough cuts, and they’re just great.”
Rosalie met Jim Sorrels doing shows at Boise Little Theater. He played guitar, and they connected through music. She was 19 when they married in 1951. Five years later, they moved to Salt Lake City with their growing family. There, Rosalie planted the seeds for what would become her remarkable career.
Sorrels helped produce influential concerts in the early 1960s with performers such as Peggy Seeger, Joan Baez, Mitch Greenhill, Phillips and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, making Utah a hotbed that helped spark the American folk revival.
She left Jim and Salt Lake City in 1966, packed the kids in her car and headed home to Idaho. She turned to music to support her family, and that year she made her debut on the national stage at the Newport Folk Festival.
She often was on the road with her children. Her songs and stories reveal it was a difficult and adventurous life, one that Marizu now views with perspective.
“There are some really cool benefits of being her daughter. I remember when we were living with Lena (Spencer), we went to hear Pete Seeger sing in Albany (N.Y),” she says. “Pete was so nice. He ignored everyone else and told me what a national treasure my mother was.”
Sorrels often incorporated family life into her songs, from the ironic “Baby Rocking Melody” to the plaintive “Hitchhiker in the Rain,” a heartbreaking tribute to her son David, who committed suicide in the summer of 1976.
“There are some songs I can’t listen to,” Marizu says. “I can’t listen to ‘Hitchhiker in the Rain.’ His suicide completely changed family life. It was hard on Mom.”
Sorrels’ voice could sing everything from jazz to opera and became one of her signature qualities. It was particularly effective when she applied it to deeply expressive, story-rich folk music. With her flair for theater and ability to spin yarns, she could hold an audience of any size completely rapt.
Singer and songwriter Bill Coffey remembers a night at Pengilly’s when he first moved to Boise in the mid-1990s.
“John Hansen was hosting an open mic,” he says. “I was leaving when John said, ‘Bill, my friend Rosalie is going to play; you should stay.’ It was your typical loud night at Pengilly’s but when she started playing, within 30 seconds the place was silent. Everyone was just listening. I couldn’t believe it. She was just amazing.”
Coffey recorded Sorrels’ “One More Next Time” for the tribute album.
“It’s a great tune that feels deeply personal,” he says. “All her music is like that. It’s part of her.”
Boise native Eilen Jewell covered Sorrels’ “High Flyin’ Wonder,” a song about a relationship on shaky ground that Sorrels wrote about Jerry Jeff Walker.
“I feel that in a lot of ways, she’s the voice of Idaho with its rugged beauty, simplicity and directness,” Jewell says. “She’s timeless.”
Jewell is part of a generation that only has vague memories of Sorrels.
“I remember seeing her play when I was little, but our families go back a long way,” Jewell says. “My grandfather and her father were old drinking buddies. My dad had a memory of driving around with their dads in some old beat-up car, and there was Rosalie, a baby in the back seat, just along for the ride. She had this rough and tumble upbringing that led to her embracing what came her way.”
One of the most emotional songs on the CD is Peter Rowan’s rendition of “Go With Me,” a song Sorrels revealed during the recording session that she wrote for Rowan.
“I was blubberin’ my way through it,” Rowan says. “Rocci suggested another take that was maybe a little less melodramatic, but I like it. It was a powerful moment. I tried to give it the emotion that Rosalie gave us.”
They moved in parallel universes and shared friends but didn’t meet until the early 1970s, when Mitch Greenhill introduced them at a gathering at Stinson Beach.
“We hung out for a couple of days,” he says. “We traded songs. At the time, I felt intimidated by the folky world, but she sang this Irish song, ‘I will lay you down my love. ... ’ She sang it as a tender, beautiful kind of thing. She had all that in her soul. She had sentiment in spades.”
Despite her notoriety, commercial success eluded Sorrels.
“She didn’t have that kind of drive,” Rowan says. “But now maybe her music will get rediscovered.”
That’s Johnson’s hope, she says. She doesn’t see this album as a tribute to Sorrels’ legacy as much as it is to her influence.
“It’s a signpost for the future,” she says. “The hope is to expose her work to a new generation. Not just for posterity but for furthering the work.”
She was absolutely captivating. Someone who could have thousands of people in the palm of her hand.
— John Nemeth
For Boise blues man John Nemeth, getting to sing on this compilation is an honor. He recorded “I Like It” at historic Royal Studios in Memphis with producer Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, whose latest hit “Uptown Funk,” which he produced with Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, won Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards earlier this month.
Mayne Smith wrote “I Like It” for Sorrels. It speaks to her renegade spirit and rejection of the trappings of the music industry, Nemeth says.
“She’s the kind of artist who doesn’t need the machine,” he says. “She’s not selling pop music, she’s selling tried-and-true music that’s a piece of the American stew. And for me, it all boils down to the songs. The material is a testament to her talent, and it’s cool that it’s coming back around. She’s stood the test of time.”
The tribute album
Here are a some song that are slated for the “Tribute to the Travelin’ Lady: Rosalie Sorrels” album. There’s no release date yet, and producer Rocci Johnson wants to launch it with a live performance. She’s still raising funds for the effort. Learn how you can contribute: GoFundMe.com/RosalieSorrels.
▪ “Pork Roast & Poetry” by Tom Russell
▪ “Ford Econoline” by Nanci Griffith
▪ “I’ve Got A Home Out In Utah” by Rosalie Sorrels and Utah Phillips, rendition by Loudon Wainwright III
▪ “Go With Me” by Sorrels, rendition by Peter Rowan
▪ “One More Next Time” by Sorrels, rendition by Bill Coffey
▪ “Hitchhiker in the Rain” by Sorrels, rendition by Barbara Higbie
▪ “Travelin’ Lady,” by Sorrels, rendition by Eliza Gilkyson
▪ “El Coyote” by Guy Clark
▪ “Baby Rocking Melody” by Sorrels, rendition by Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore
▪ “Apples & Pears” by Sorrels, rendition by Peggy Seeger
▪ “Song for My Birthday” by Sorrels, rendition by John Gorka
▪ “My Last Go Round” by Sorrels, rendition by Laurie Lewis
▪ “Postcard From India” by Sorrels, rendition by Mitch Greenhill
▪ “Nevada Moon” by Sorrels, rendition by Muzzie Braun
▪ “Bells of Ireland” by Sorrels, rendition by Giant Leprechauns
▪ “All I Ever Do Is Say Goodbye” by Sorrels, rendition by Pinto Bennett
▪ “Waltzing with Bears” (Traditional) rendition by Belinda Bowler
▪ “Talking Wolverine Blues” by Utah Phillips, rendition by Brendan Phillips
▪ “Borderline Heart” by Sorrels, rendition by Robin & Linda Williams
▪ “In the Quiet Country of Your Eyes” by Sorrels, rendition by Hillfolk Noir
▪ “Another Woman's Man” by Sorrels, rendition by Emily Braden
▪ “Come and Be My Driver” by Sorrels, rendition by Joshua Tree
▪ “A Basque Christmas” by Sorrels, rendition by Amuma Says No